Diversity in social intelligence


Intelligence is often boiled down to a simple test score, representing core learning skills such as pattern detection and verbal fluency. However other forms of intelligence are essential for human behaviour. One such form is social intelligence – the repertoire of skills needed to engage effectively with others, in a way which is appropriate to the context. These skills are often referred to in psychology by the umbrella term “social cognition”. This encompasses abilities such as emotion recognition, effective interpersonal communication and theory of mind. The second aspect of social intelligence is appreciation of the social context. Examples of social contexts include the cultural context (e.g. Japan vs. the UK), the relationship context (e.g. friend vs. stranger) and the environmental context (e.g. school versus home).


Why did we do this study?

With this study we challenged the notion that there is only one legitimate form of human intelligence. Specifically, we explored social intelligence in autism. Indeed, autistic people are generally thought to have inevitable and inherent difficulties with social skills. However, maybe these social difficulties experienced by autistic people are greater when they interact with non-autistic people, because both groups of people don’t share the same social understanding. In other words, do autistic people experience the same social difficulties when they interact with other autistic people, who share the same autism cultural context?


What did we do?

The 72 volunteer participants were split into 9 groups of 8 people: 3 groups included only autistic participants, 3 other groups included only non-autistic participants, and the 3 final groups included both autistic and non-autistic participants. Within these groups, participants played several games of “diffusion chains”: the researcher told a story or showed a skill to the first person of the chain, who then had to teach the second person, who then had to teach the third person, and so on. With these games, we were able to see if the original information was correctly transferred along the chain, from one participant to the next. If the final participant can explain the story or skill as well as the researcher did at the beginning, it means that this chain of participants was able to socially interact and communicate efficiently. You can read more about the protocol on this page.


What did we find?

We found that the chains of autistic people only and the chains of non-autistic people only were as good as each other to transfer information efficiently. This is a very important finding, as it means that when autistic people interact with other autistic people, they can interact with each other as well as non-autistic people interact with other non-autistic people. We also found that the chains that included both autistic and non-autistic people were not doing as well as the others to transfer information. This is again an important finding, as it suggests that the social difficulties experienced by autistic people are indeed greater when they interact with non-autistic people, who do not share their social understanding and culture.



You can read more about the project on this page.

We have created several accessible summaries of this project:


The findings have been published in a peer-reviewed journal, and are available at:


The findings were also presented at several conferences, with the talk and posters listed below:

  • Poster at the International Society for Autism Research Conference, May 2019: poster
  • Public lecture on neurodiversity and social interaction, June 2019: video
  • Talk at the Autistica Discover Conference, June 2019: video and slides
  • Poster at the Flux Congress, September 2019: poster
  • Talk at the Autism Europe Congress, September 2019: video and slides


Who conducted and funded the project?

This project was conducted by Catherine Crompton, Danielle Ropar, Claire Evans-Williams, Emma Flynn, and Sue Fletcher-Watson. The study was funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation.